The B1G 10: As far as Jim Harbaugh is concerned, Michigan has no where to go but up
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
There’s nowhere else to go, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jim Harbaugh went there.
That Jim Harbaugh upped the ante after 15 spring practices tells you all you need to know about this season.
“I think this team is the best version that we’ve had of ourselves,” Harbaugh said after last weekend’s spring game.
The guy who has never been afraid to set expectations — even during the often disappointing first 6 of his 8 years so far in Ann Arbor — then proclaimed there’s only 1 way out of the 2023 season.
“The phrase, ‘strike while the iron is hot’ is at the forefront of our minds,” Harbaugh continued. “We want to keep the ground that we have, plus we want to take some more ground.”
After back-to-back losses in the Playoff semifinals in 2021-22, there’s only 1 place to go: the national championship game.
And because this is the last season of the 4-team Playoff (it moves to 12 teams in 2024), this is the last chance for Michigan to win the national title in the current format while playing a maximum of 15 games.
Winning the national title in 2024 and beyond could mean playing as many as 17 games.
It was only 3 years ago that Michigan finished the 2020 season at rock bottom under Harbaugh. The season concluded without playing bitter rival Ohio State for the first time since 1917.
Michigan won 2 of 6 games, and the pandemic season shook everything to its core. Harbaugh began flirting with the NFL, and the Michigan administration wasn’t sure how much longer it would stay invested.
Ohio State was rolling, Michigan was folding, and the future looked bleak — especially with the Wolverines also struggling to stay ahead of Michigan State and Penn State.
Now here we are 2 years later, after 25 wins in 28 games — including 2 Big Ten championships and 2 blowouts of Ohio State — and Harbaugh is speaking of taking the final step toward Michigan immortality.
He has an elite quarterback, he has a culture of toughness and togetherness (it might be corny, but it works), and he has everyone believing. Only unthinkable mistakes — from the coaching staff and players — kept Michigan from playing Georgia in last year’s national championship game.
The loss to TCU — which included 2 INTs returned for TDs, and horrific play-calling in the red zone — was an aberration. That’s the only way to look at it.
That means 2023 is another chance to take down Georgia.
“A great roster of players, tremendous coaches all pulling in the same direction,” Harbaugh said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a letdown as the months go on, but this is the best version of football that I’ve seen since I’ve been here the last 8 years.”
2. Dangerous Michigan, 2.0
When Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015, he declared the Wolverines would win the same way his teams did at Stanford: with character and cruelty.
He wanted players who won in the classroom, and who beat you up on the lines of scrimmage on the field. It took him 6 seasons to get to that point, but now he’s working on Year 3 of it — and this time it’s with a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate at the most important position on the field in QB JJ McCarthy.
The last time he had that — in 2010 at Stanford with Andrew Luck — his team was nearly unbeatable. In fact, Stanford’s only loss that season (at Oregon) was in Luck’s worst game of his college career, and after the Cardinal blew a 21-3 first quarter lead.
This Michigan team is different because it will enter the 2023 season as the undisputed best team in the Big Ten, and as a team full of motivation. The Wolverines are 19-1 in their last 20 Big Ten games, including 15 straight.
They’ll also enter with a quarterback who’s clear on what happened in last year’s Playoff, and has taken it personally. A talented, dual threat quarterback who played at a high level in his first season as a starter.
What happens as he plays through his 2nd season as a starter, the time when most coaches believe quarterbacks make their biggest strides in knowledge and command of the offense?
Michigan hasn’t been this confident in the program and where it’s headed since the 1990s, since the Wolverines won a national title in 1997 with an average offense and a dominant defense.
This time around, Michigan potentially has high-level production on both sides of the field.
3. Strike now, The Epilogue
A critical factor in taking the final step toward winning it all is self evaluation.
At times in the Fiesta Bowl Playoff semifinal, Michigan couldn’t block TCU’s smaller but quicker defensive front. The Wolverines had to get bigger and more athletic on the offensive line — and that meant hitting the transfer portal.
Harbaugh added LaDarius Henderson from Arizona State, a 5th-year senior who will likely start at left tackle. He added Drake Nugent, a 5th-year senior center from Stanford, and 4th-year junior Myles Hinton from Stanford, who will be the swing tackle and could eventually start.
That’s 3 experienced linemen — with a combined 69 career starts — to deal with what the Georgia defense will bring in the Playoff.
If you don’t think Harbaugh is pointing toward Georgia — or Alabama or any other SEC champion — you’re not following along. Michigan got faster and more athletic off the edge by adding Coastal Carolina edge Josiah Stewart — among the top 3 edge rushers in the portal — and LB Ernest Hausmann from Nebraska.
Michigan is big enough to control the interior with DE Kris Jenkins and DTs Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant, but needed athleticism on the edge. Now the Wolverines have it.
And there’s only 1 way out of the season.
4. Plug and play
The most overrated QB competition in college football: Kyle McCord vs. Devon Brown.
Because it doesn’t really matter who wins the job, a big season is there for the taking.
Of all the bloated numbers from the Ohio State offense under coach Ryan Day, the most impressive is percent of 3rd down completions that convert to first downs.
In the last 5 seasons — with 4 different quarterbacks starting games (CJ Stroud, Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins, McCord) — 72.06 percent of passes completed on 3rd down went for first downs. More impressive: 92 of the 209 3rd down completions (44 percent) went for 15+ yards.
So nearly 1 of every 2 3rd down completions in the last 5 years has gone for 15+ yards.
5. The Weekly 5
The top 5 Big Ten Heisman Trophy favorites for 2023:
1. Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State (+2000): Can he have a DeVonta Smith type season?
2. Kyle McCord, Ohio State (+2000): The position and the team give any candidacy a boost.
3. Drew Allar, Penn State (+2000): Needs a Penn State Playoff run.
4. JJ McCarthy, Michigan (+3000): Opened eyes in 2022; how much better can he be in Year 2 as a starter?
5. Blake Corum, Michigan (+3000): Would’ve been a Heisman finalist last season had he stayed healthy.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Wisconsin DT Keeanu Benton.
“He has been flying up draft boards. Strong Combine and pro day, and interviews. He has strong tape, and he’s one of those quick interior big bodies. He’s more of a threat as a pass rusher than you think, and that’s going to develop in our league. He has heavy, strong hands and a quick move to split doubles (teams). I think he’s moved up to a Day 2 pick.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: best Super Bowl era draft pick in school history.
1. Michigan: CB Charles Woodson. Defensive POY and ROY, 4-time Pro Bowler, 65 INTs and NFL record for consecutive seasons with a pick-6 (6).
2. Ohio State: OT Orlando Pace. 1st overall pick of 1997 draft, and among the best at his position when he played.
3. Penn State: LB Jack Ham. 6-time All-Pro was a 2nd round pick.
4. Wisconsin: C Mike Webster. A top 3 center of all time, 6-time Pro Bowler, 5th round pick.
5. Minnesota: DE Bobby Bell. Defensive POY (1969) and member of NFL 100th anniversary team.
6. Iowa: LB Andre Tippett. 2-time All-Pro, 100 sacks in 11 seasons.
7. Illinois: LB Dick Butkus. 2-time defensive POY, NFL 1960s and 70s all-decade team, 5-time All-Pro.
8. Purdue: CB Rod Woodson. Defensive POY, 6-time All-Pro, 71 INTs, NFL career record for pick-6s (12).
9. Maryland: DT Randy White. 7-time All-Pro, 111 sacks, NFL 100th anniversary team.
10. Michigan State: CB Herb Adderley. 3-time Super Bowl champion, 5-time NFL champion, 4-time All-Pro, 62 career turnovers gained (48 INTs, 14 fumble recoveries).
11. Indiana: QB Trent Green. 28,475 career passing yards and 162 career TD passes, 2-time Pro Bowl selection.
12. Nebraska: G Will Shields. 3-time 1st team All-Pro, 4-time 2nd team All-Pro, NFL 2000s all-decade team.
13. Rutgers: S Devin McCourty. 3-time Super Bowl winner, 2-time 1st team All-Pro, 3-time 2nd team All-Pro.
14. Northwestern: WR Steve Tasker. Former 9th round pick was 5-time All Pro as a special teams player.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Did Illinois get Bret Bielema, the Wisconsin coach, or Bret Bielema, the Arkansas coach? After that late collapse last season, I’m beginning to wonder. — Richard Proctor, Louisville.
Bielema was in a good situation at Wisconsin. It was built out for him, and there was a culture of winning already set. That’s doesn’t mean Bielema didn’t take it and add to it (he certainly did), it just means the lift was easier than what he walked into at Arkansas.
We can argue about whether he got enough time, but when you’re losing at that level in the SEC, it doesn’t take long for presidents to move on. When he arrived at Illinois, it was as bad as it was at Arkansas. And recruiting to Arkansas is much easier than recruiting to Illinois.
I’m actually shocked Bielema has the Illini this far forward in such a short time. Think about this: 3 of the 4 losses in the last 5 weeks of the season were 1 possession losses — the 4th by 9 points. And frankly, but for a terrible interference call, Illinois beats Michigan.
How would you feel about Bielema had that happened?
Give him time, He’s not that far from putting together a roster that can eventually get a win against a Big Ten heavyweight.
64.5. Just how dramatically will QB Cade McNamara change the Iowa offense in 2023?
The Michigan transfer completed 64.5 percent of his passes in 2021, his first full season as a starter. That number is nearly 10 percentage points higher than Iowa’s quarterbacks in 2022 (55 percent).
McNamara also averaged 7.9 yards per attempt in 2021, a hefty 2.1 yards per attempt higher than Iowa’s quarterbacks in 2022. Those are real, tangible numbers that can be the difference between the worst offense in college football (Iowa, 2022), and a chance to win 10 games in 2023.
10. Quote to note
Ohio State coach Ryan Day: “Anytime you’re in spring practice, preseason, there has to be consequences for when players make mistakes. We try to simulate the game the best we can. Just to make a mistake and think it’s going to be okay, it doesn’t work.”